Why should the licence of an artwork be interesting?

http://www.mtaa.net/mtaaRR/news/twhid/artificial_legal_add_ons_to_art.html

Most artworks have a legal status as copyrighted works, as designs, or at the very least as insured objects. Some, such as works by Carey Young, are legal documents themselves. The law provides a kind of ontology for artworks. But unreproducable artworks are more interesting when the unreproducability is a technical rather than a legal effect.

Artworks often have certificates of authenticity, and contracts and guarantees were the stuff of 1960s conceptualism. Sales documents are important in establishing provenance, and recipts are important when filing tax returns. But usually the paperwork of an artwork is of peripheral interest at best.

Alternative licenses are not part of the legal orthodoxy of society though. They are a signal of dissent (or at least a desire for reform). They are political to a degree. Applying one to a work is a small political act.

The political commitments of artists are more often a cause of embarrassment than an interesting component of the work even genetically. For every David a dozen surrealist members of the communist party. And a David. The political commitment of artists is too often empty, and empty-headed, gestures. “Career building bullshit that cares” as Art & Language said.

The difference with alternative licenses is that art is directly implicated in “The Copyfight”. This is not political volunteerism, these are issues that actually affect art. The production and consumption of art is part of the debate. Warhol, Koons, Garnett and others have all been bitten by copyright. Christo, the owners of a work by Kapoor, and others have all bitten others with copyright.

In an open society it is vital that we not allow the closing off of artistic freedom through the legal means that alternative licences are a protection against. We cannot force Magnum photographers or toy manufacturers to adopt the same licence, but we can use our own adoption as a reason why they should. We can take a stand for our principles that affects us for a change.

Commitment is bad for art because it limits artistic freedom. But the copyfight is commitment to artistic freedom. And alternative licenses are a tactic in the copyfight. Using one is a sign of commitment to a non-artistic cause, a limit on artistic freedom. But that non-artistic cause is the cause of removing limits on artistic freedom.

This is reflexive, or at least a kind of loop. It has something to do with the genetic character of the work and its aesthetics. Where a work is concerned with aesthetic freedom, and few modernist or postmodernist works are not, the licence of the artwork may not be part of the visual aesthetics of the work but it will impinge on the experience and effect of it.

The reception of a work and what is known about it can affect what is seen in it. Nelson Goodman uses a work’s status as a fake as an example of this, and cites elements of fake Vermeers that are obvious to us now but that weren’t obvious when they were first seen. DJ Spooky describes remixes as “interrogation of meaning”. The licensing of a work can prevent its reproduction and thereby its analysis and discussion of it, and can prevent remixing of it, to the point where its content or meaning are unrealized or unextended. This is an aesthetic loss for the work.

The licence of an artwork is interesting because even if it cannot make a work look better it can make the work be seen better and can lead to the creation of better work. This is not incidental to art or to artworks, it is part of the very conditions of their existence. The canvas of a painting isn’t interesting until you wonder what would happen if it wasn’t there.

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Posted in Aesthetics, Free Culture
4 comments on “Why should the licence of an artwork be interesting?
  1. t.whid says:

    hi Rob,
    posted a link back FYI.

  2. When did these limits on artistic freedom you mention change from being limits on publishers’ freedom to limits on artists’ freedom?
    Or do you believe they were always intended to restrict artists rather than publishers?
    That copyright was granted to the author doesn’t mean it was intended to restrict other authors.
    What has brought about this new consciousness in artistic freedom is the fact that many artists’ toolsets are now digital.
    And don’t forget the class of artists known as ‘programmers’ who were among the first to notice patents and copyright interfering with their artistic freedom.

  3. Rob Myers says:

    These limits started being a problem for artists by the 1960s.
    This predates copyright on software in the US.
    Consciousness of copyright problems predates widespread availability of digital tools. Warhol, Kruger and Koons are from the paintbox era, not the photoshop one.
    IP maximalism inspired by increasingly digital media has made the problem worse though.

  4. Thanks for picking me up on my lack of rigour and accuracy here. I admit I’m not being very careful.
    Consciousness of copyright’s restraint upon one’s artistic freedom is a continuum, from those few artists you mention to a very large number of artists today (especially digital artists).
    I guess there’s no real step change of copyright’s constraint in the popular consciousness, when this changed from subconscious to conscious, i.e. the mild irritation of a cobweb to 6 inch thick steel hawsers.
    Those few artists in the sixties were certainly conscious of copyright, but I suspect the general populace perhaps thought it akin to some plagiarism/libel laws. Or do you think that the public well understood copyright as an economic incentive at the time, and its infringement a commercial matter rather than a moral one?
    Either way, it does seem that people are ready to believe today that copyright was always intended to restrict audiences (and artists among them) in what they could do with the published works they enjoyed.